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Drop the dead donkey

American liberalism is a spent force – as President Obama will discover in November

16 June 2012

6:00 AM

16 June 2012

6:00 AM

In 1992, I wrote a book called The Conservative Crack-Up, and my liberal adversaries were joyous. Which is not to say they read the book. American liberals never read a book by a conservative, not even an essay, not even a letter to the editor. What gave wings to their spirits was that 1992 was an election year, and they thought I had somehow provided them with ammunition. They neglected to note that some years before I had written another book, The Liberal Crack-Up, in which I had said that the future for liberals looked even gloomier. At the risk of bragging — of all the virtues, humility is the one I find mysterious — I think I can now say my predictions were accurate. Twenty years on, as President Obama is about to find out, American liberalism is facing extinction. 

The tensions that fevered conservatism in 1992 were typical of a young movement. Neoconservatives (tough-minded liberals, not simply foreign policy hawks) were adjusting to their new political allies, and the so-called Reagan Democrats and the evangelicals were jostling for position within the growing conservative ranks. Difficulties were inevitable, especially since the conservative movement that emerged in the 1950s was already a mix of anti-communists, libertarians and traditionalists.

Yet the conservatives were an expanding coalition, containing bruised egos, different policy emphases, and roles to be played by each constituency in the growing movement. Today, that movement, still called the conservative movement, has picked up further allies, including constitutionalists, who want power to devolve to the states, and those alarmed about federal spending and governmental debt. They are called the Tea Party movement.

American conservative tensions, however, are as mild palpitations compared to the troubles of moribund liberals. Liberals had completely dominated American politics in the post-second world war era, to the point of stifling all sensible debate. Their domination of the culture was so complete that it inspired in me a sociological joke. The liberals had created in the place of a vibrant, intellectually alive culture, a kultursmog, a culture polluted by their own dreary values and bugaboos.


White liberals existed uneasily with increasingly demanding black militants. There arose the Revd Jesse Jackson and shortly thereafter the Revd Al Sharpton, two hucksters who are still around today. The trades unions coexisted uneasily with the environmentalists and the consumerists, and others who were simple luddites. There were pacifists attempting to prevail on liberal proponents of some vestige of realpolitik. There were the charlatans of different varieties of identity politics. There were even more trivial activists. All called themselves liberals.

American socialists and other fantasticos had given up their third party dreams and quietly slipped into the liberal camp and the Democratic party. Sean Wilentz, the successor to the great liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr, has called it a fragmentation. I call it a crack-up. In any event, it left the liberals depleted.

The numbers make my case. Today, roughly 42 per cent of the American electorate claim to be conservative. Roughly 35 per cent claim to be independent — and most of the independents, alarmed about President Obama’s metastasising debt, voted with the conservatives in their 2010 rout of the Democratic party. Their concern will persist into November’s elections and beyond. Only around 20 per cent of the electorate claim to be liberals. Their influence is magnified by their control of the kultursmog, but that is rapidly attenuating due to the rise of Fox News, talk radio, the internet, and the media organs of the growing conservative movement. Today, the liberals’ numbers are probably overshadowed by the number of birdwatchers in America. I predict they will go the way of the American Prohibition Party. (And I shall drink to that!)

Conservatives today boast of their conservatism on the campaign trail. Liberals, by contrast, must claim to be ‘moderates’ and call conservatives extreme. This year, everyone in the race for the Republican nomination was protesting that he or she was the real conservative — even Mitt Romney, the eventual winner. 

As for President Obama, he claims to represent the American mainstream, but refers to Republicans in terms lifted from the hoary past. He called Congressman Paul Ryan, the powerful chairman of the House budget committee, and his like-minded Republicans ‘thinly veiled social Darwinists’, a term reeking of some provincial university lecture hall, possibly the University of Chicago where he taught. Not since days of yore has the epithet been used. What next? Will he call Republican foreign policy a return to Manifest Destiny? His bizarre removal of Winston Churchill’s bust from the White House suggests that he might. Presidential candidate Romney has already touched a liberal nerve by identifying Obama as a candidate who is out of touch. He should remind voters of Obama’s quaint epithets, too.

President Obama must be worried. The economy, which we were told was on the mend, is faltering again. And while Romney may have had trouble winning the nomination, in terms of conservatives and independents versus liberals and Democrats, the numbers are with him. My prediction is that the Republican nominee will come out of the Republican convention in August with a full head of steam. Boosted by years of growing conservative strength and aided by the independents’ concern for Obama’s huge deficits and slow growth, he will barrel through the autumn and on to victory in November. Obama will soon be back in Blue Island, Illinois, creating his presidential museum. As for liberalism, it is dead. It will be replaced by the left’s cronyism, which has never been favoured by the majority of Americans.


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